It is widely accepted that 2016 has been the most vile year in memory—a train wreck contained inside the world’s biggest dumpster fire. But amid the swirl of venom, political excrement, and personal tears, it is worth savoring the fact that, in the world of sports, tragedy has not been the defining characteristic. On the field, the sports world has been an oasis of uplifting escape. And off the field, allegedly apolitical players have charted a high-profile path of resistance that our normal political channels have failed miserably to articulate.
Between the lines, this year will always be remembered for the numbers 3-1 and the way those digits became the prologue for two of the most epic comebacks in sports history. Two curses were broken by two long-suffering teams in two Midwestern cities leading to two parades that were less celebrations of championships than they were celebrations of community. I’m of course talking about the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs. The Cavs were the first team to ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, and they did it while competing only against the Golden State Warriors, the greatest regular-season team in the history of the NBA. Facilitating this miracle was LeBron James, who led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals: the most remarkable one-person performance, for my money, in NBA history.
The Cubs saw the Cavs’ drama and raised them, not least of all by beating the Cleveland Indians in the process. Even those of us distraught about all this year took from us had to feel a buzzy joy at the site of Cubs third-baseman Kris Bryant grinning as he fielded the final out of the Series, and then throw the ball as his feet slipped underneath him on the wet field. (This does not apply to Cleveland baseball fans.) That was the cap on what was the greatest game seven in the history of sports possibly just edging out the very game seven that the Cavs needed to beat the Warriors. Cleveland, after winning the city’s first title in any sport since 1964, gave us a victory parade with more people—1.3 million—than the entire population of the city itself. Chicago Cubs fans, celebrating their first title since Mark Twain was a working writer, gathered 5.5 million for the Cubbies, the seventh-largest gathering of humans in world history.
But the on-field miracles weren’t just found in those two series.
This year also gave us the greatest WNBA finals in history between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, coming down to the last possession. The 2016 Rio Olympics burnished the legends of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. They also showcased the futuristic artistry of gymnast Simone Biles; the groundbreaking swimming of Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel; and the unbelievable performance from swimmer Anthony Ervin, who won gold in the 50m, 16 years after his last gold medal.
But sports was more than escape and a smile in 2016. We saw athletes use their platform to do something that politicians and the mainstream media refused to do: speak truth to power. This is not just the story of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, his anthem protests, and all that they sparked. There are new voices every day standing with Standing Rock, calling out police violence, and being proud opponents of sexism and homophobia. For me, this year of resistance started to take shape in June with the funeral of Muhammad Ali, organized by Ali and his wife, Lonnie, over the last 15 years of his life. I was in Louisville that entire weekend, and I can testify that it was a celebration of fighting hatred, standing up to anti-Islamic bigotry, and the importance of using sports as a platform of resistance. I am utterly convinced that the national appreciation of Ali’s life influenced everything that would come. I know it mattered to LeBron James, who stood on stage at ESPN’s ESPY awards with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade, and said, “I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali. The GOAT. But to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves…. Speak up. Use our influence. And renounce all violence. And most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”
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It mattered to Colin Kaepernick, who wore a T-shirt with Muhammad Ali’s image. When asked why, he said, “He was someone that fought a very similar fight and was trying to do what is right for the people. And for me to have someone like that come before me, that is huge. He is someone that helped pave the way for this to happen. What he did and what he stood for, people remember him more for that than they do as a boxer. I can’t let him die in vain; I have to try to carry that on and try to fight that same fight until we accomplish our goal.”
Ali’s inspiration also mattered to Swin Cash, Maya Moore, Tamika Catchings, and all the WNBA players who took a knee against police violence and challenged their own league’s right to fine them for their free speech. But Ali’s death was of course just one catalyst that sparked this awakening. Also decisive was the way people off the field responded to the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, demonstrating, holding vigils, and, when necessary, facing tear gas and arrests. Then Kaepernick took his knee and it spread dramatically across the country from Beaumont, Texas, to Seattle, Washington; from football players to volleyball players to cheerleaders. A particularly powerful moment was soccer-star Megan Rapinoe taking a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick and saying:
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”
Courage was contagious. But this courage did not only reach the young. The highlight of this year for me was my finally interviewing Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. The Louisiana State University All-American was kicked out of the NBA after protesting the anthem in 1996 while a member of the Denver Nuggets. Since then he has been largely silent. The emergence of Kaepernick and the conversation it sparked gave him new life, even bringing the two of them together for a photo and leading to our interview. Abdul-Rauf explained to me why he spoke out 20 years ago. These are the words I will carry with me in 2017 and beyond:
I realized at a young age that I had to break these chains because I felt that there were things I wanted to say, things that I saw that were unjust, and I said to myself, “Why am I afraid? Why am I a coward? Why can’t I communicate this?” And I had to slowly begin a process of doing that eventually led to protesting the flag. [Important to my decision] was the writings, of Arundhati Roy, the Indian political activist and author, and she said: “Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. So to be silent, to say nothing, is just as political an act of speaking out. Either way you’re accountable. So we’re not saved through our silence, actually, the politics of silence is a negative one, we’re still accountable.”
And I said I don’t want to be on that side of history. I want to stand up for principles and I want to live and die with a free conscience and a free soul whether anybody likes it or not. I’m not always going to be right, I’m not always going to be eloquent, but I’m always going to try my best to stand up for what’s right and what’s just, whether people like it or not and so I began that process and that’s where it’s taken me and I don’t have any regrets. Despite all of the backlash and all of the setbacks, a setback ain’t nothing but a setup to a comeback.
This year was a setback, but there were also powerful moments of resistance on and off the field. It’s comeback time in 2017.